I’m pretty sure that for the most part, native Portlanders like Italian sandwiches more than people who move here do. That’s a shame; I invite newcomers to reconsider.

Let’s be clear. A real Maine Italian starts with a pillow-soft roll split down the middle. On one side is a layer of deli ham; on the other, a strip of white American cheese.

Then veggies: a generous handful of chopped onion, sliced tomato, tangy sour pickles, green pepper slices and pungent olives.

Garnished with salt, pepper and a heavy drizzle of salad oil, wrapped in a sheet of waxed paper secured with an elastic, Italians are perfect take-out food.

Why don’t out-of-staters warm up to Italians? They may compare them to hoagies, grinders or heroes in Boston, New York or wherever else they come from.

Some think the roll is too white-bread, that the meat should be salami or the cheese provolone. Some even want to add lettuce! They’re missing the point. Those are good sandwiches, but they’re not real Maine Italians.


Growing up in Portland in the ’60s, our Sunday ritual was a quick and easy supper. One Sunday out of four we’d have Angelone’s pizza or Kentucky Fried Chicken. The other three Sundays, we had Italians.

Every Portlander had a favorite Italian. Ours were from George’s Variety, on Pine Street near Winter. You could get an Italian anywhere in Portland.

On Brackett Street alone there were four Italian sandwich stores between the Million Dollar Bridge and Maine Med: at the corner of Gray Street, Malconian’s at the corner of Spring, Liberty Market at the corner of Pine, and Harry’s at the corner of Carleton. Within a couple of blocks of Brackett, you could easily find a dozen stores with Italians, each offering a slightly different variation.

George’s didn’t survive after Pine became one-way between Brackett and Longfellow Square. At Portland High, my horizons expanded beyond the West End; friends introduced me to DiPietro’s on Cumberland Avenue. The bread was reliably fresh; the ratio and quality of ingredients were ideal: lots of onions, tangy pickles and delicious oil-cured olives. Then, a few years ago, the owner took her well-earned retirement and closed the store.

Where Portland once had an Italian sandwich store every couple of blocks, now I have to drive all over the city searching for my new favorite. I’ve taken careful tasting notes at dozens of stores. Comments range from “they should be ashamed of themselves” to “pretty darn good,” but none matches DiPietro’s.

You might ask why I don’t go to Amato’s, the originator of the Italian and by far the largest Italian sandwich vendor. Since you can’t get a real Maine Italian once you get very far beyond Portland, that means Amato’s is the worldwide market leader for Italians.


I like Amato’s. Their trademark is plenty of ripe tomatoes, and they use delicious Greek olives. They’re a little weak on onions, and their pickles aren’t quite as good as DiPietro’s, but Amato’s makes a good Italian.

I want to find an Italian sandwich store other than Amato’s precisely because they’re dominant. An Italian isn’t just a sandwich. It’s part of Portland’s distinctive culture – they sure don’t have Italians in Oregon!

Food often distinguishes a region: cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, fried catfish in Arkansas, mufaletta in New Orleans, runzas in Nebraska and pasties in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In Portland we have our share: lobsters and clams, of course, but also Italians.

We’re in danger of letting our Italian sandwich culture dwindle away. All but one of the storefronts I remember on Brackett Street are gone, and the last one doesn’t even sell Italians! The ideal Italian sandwich store has a glass partition through which you can see the sandwich being made as your mouth begins to water. It has a creaky wooden floor. It’s a warm place with a piquant aroma on a cold winter day.

So come on, all you Portland Buy Local people. Embrace the Italian sandwich culture and find your favorite. There’s still time before all the corner stores get replaced by 7-11s and Cumberland Farms. Keep the Portland in Portland by keeping the Italian in Portland.


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